Saturday, August 23, 2014

Wesley Salmon's Early Interest in Whitehead


I was reading Probability and Causality: Essays in Honor of Wesley C. Salmon, and was interested to see it included an annotated bibliography, where Salmon provides contextual commentary regarding all of his publications up to that time (1988).  The first entry was an interesting surprise.  While his post-doctoral work was squarely in the mid-twentieth century empiricist tradition of philosophy of science, his MA thesis in 1947 was on the topic “Whitehead’s Conception of Freedom”, about which he comments: 

“A relic, best forgotten, of the days when I was totally committed to Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysics.” 

In his later career, when stretching his empiricist commitments in search of a realist approach to causation, Salmon developed his own causal "process” theory (Salmon 1984).  No mention of Whitehead, but perhaps some background inspiration?


Here’s a bit longer autobiographical excerpt from Salmon’s book on Hans Reichenbach:

“On the basis of personal experience, I can testify to Reichenbach’s qualities both as a teacher and a man. I was a raw young graduate student with an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Chicago when first I went to UCLA in 1947 to work for a doctorate. At Chicago I had been totally immersed in Whitehead’s philosophy; ironically, Carnap was at Chicago during those years, but I never took a course from him. My advisors barely acknowledged his existence, and certainly never recommended taking any of his classes. Upon arrival at UCLA I was totally unfamiliar with Reichenbach or his works, but during my first semester I was stimulated and delighted by his course, ‘Philosophy of Nature’, based upon Atom and Cosmos. Simultaneously, I continued my intensive studies of Whitehead’s Process and Reality. A severe intellectual tension emerged in my mind between Whitehead, the scientifically sophisticated metaphysician, and Reichenbach, the scientifically sophisticated anti-metaphysician.

     To the best of my recollection, the tension grew to crisis proportions when I heard Reichenbach deliver his masterful Presidential Address, on rationalism and empiricism, to the Pacific Division of the APA at its meeting in Los Angeles in December of 1947.  This lecture was precisely what I – as a naïve graduate student – needed to make me face the crucial question: on what conceivable grounds could one make reasonable judgments concerning the truth or falsity of Whitehead’s metaphysical claims? When I posed this question to myself, as well as to teachers and fellow graduate students sympathetic to Whitehead, I received nothing even approaching a satisfactory answer.  By the end of that academic year I was a convinced – though still very naïve – logical empiricist.”
Salmon, Wesley C. (1979). Hans Reichenbach, Logical Empiricist, Dortrecht: D. Reidel, p.8.